Two positive COVID-19 tests reported at McGovern

MIT to report results as ‘true positives’ despite becoming ‘increasingly confident’ that they were ‘environmental positives’ from work conducted in lab

MIT Medical reported two positive COVID-19 tests from a McGovern Institute for Brain Research lab in Building 46 Sept. 18–19.

It is “likely” that the lab’s research on COVID-19 led to “environmental positives,” Vice President for Research Maria Zuber, McGovern Institute Director Robert Desimone, Picower Institute Director Li-Huei Tsai, and Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) Department Head James DiCarlo wrote in an email to the BCS community Sept. 23. Researchers in the lab conduct “work on diagnostic assays to detect the same part of the [SARS-CoV-2] viral genome” that MIT Medical’s tests detect.

MIT Medical’s COVID-19 test does not differentiate between non-infectious DNA or RNA molecules that match the SARS-CoV genome from the actual virus. The two individuals who initially tested positive have since tested negative “using viral assays that target COVID-19 RNA different from those being used in the lab,” they wrote.

Zuber, Desimone, Tsai, and DiCarlo wrote that “there are no known viral particles in the lab and no person-to-person transmission of the virus in the lab.” 

The lab paused operations “immediately” after receiving the test results and “underwent a deep cleaning to remove the DNA and RNA that might have been on machinery in the lab.” Additionally, “lab leaders are developing updated policies for decontamination procedures,” they wrote. 

MIT is “working closely with public health authorities,” “supporting the researchers involved,” and “exploring new testing strategies for individuals engaged in COVID-related research so that we can reduce the potential for environmental positives in the future,” they wrote. 

Zuber wrote in an email to The Tech that going forward, researchers will be tested before they enter the lab for the day rather than after work. “If that is effective, then it will eliminate the need for a separate testing program; otherwise, there are other tests that do not use the DNA/RNA segments being studied in the lab.”

Zuber wrote that of the additional COVID-19 tests run on the individuals who tested positive, “one test assays the region being used in diagnostic development in the lab along with a different region not used in the research lab. For the result to be positive, both would need to be detected. The other assay targets two different viral genome regions that do not match the material used in the research lab. Both test results were negative.”

Zuber wrote that MIT is “increasingly confident” that the positives are environmental. However, MIT is continuing to “treat each of these results as a ‘true positive’ in terms of our reporting on our dashboard and to public health agencies.”